Put the Public Back in Schools


It’s been more than a decade since the Kettering Foundation’s David Matthews wrote his provocative book, Is There A Public For Public Schools? It was one of a number of mid-90s treatises exploring the growing disconnect between citizens and their civic institutions—local governments, health care, schools, or in one much talked-about study, bowling leagues. Matthews’ conclusion was that the public and the public schools were moving apart, that “the historic compact between them was in danger of dissolving.”

He called for investment in a “healthier public life,” healthy communities with a shared commitment to common work, even on issues where there’s disagreement. While the connection may not seem clear at first, he argued that public schools cannot exist without publics. Matthews revisited that theory last year in Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy. Little has changed, he found. Citizens and school leaders, professional educators and policymakers are still talking past each other. The answer remains the same: reclaim public education with democratic self-government and citizen engagement. Which begs the question, do we see evidence of such healthy public-building here?

It’s a legitimate question, because we see many of the same challenges. Yet we are fiercely proud of our schools—and with good reason. Public education in Wisconsin, with few exceptions outside the absurdly difficult Milwaukee system, is excellent, especially in the greater Madison region. We have a lot of dedicated administrators, talented teachers and smart, successful kids. We even manage to pass a referendum from time to time.

There are real and significant problems and issues. Not all kids succeed. Not all parents feel invited into the schools or welcome when they get there. Too many state lawmakers have not only made dumb budget decisions, they’ve made public education into a public sport for political reasons.

Yet in spite of those challenges, or perhaps because of them, there are encouraging indications of a growing public for public schools. First of all, it’s impossible to overstate the United Way of Dane County’s importance in fostering grassroots public support for schools. Through its leadership of the “Schools of Hope” effort, thousands of volunteers have been marshaled to tutor kids and close the achievement gap. If Matthews needs a glimmer of hope for restoring public support for schools, he’ll find it here. United Way will need to sustain the effort, and it has so far. In fact, it has expanded the program to Sun Prairie and Verona and has created “Pre-Schools of Hope,” which may be the most hopeful of all. United Way’s “Born Learning” initiative is designed to engage the community in preparing children and families to succeed in school from birth. Amen.

Then there’s the Foundation for Madison Public Schools. While the Foundation doesn’t make up for the lack of public support—and it never will—it is an important complement. Its initial roots were teachers, especially retired teachers, who were committed to supporting our schools. It’s grown to include the business community and philanthropists, who believe schools are critical to our region’s future.

And speaking of the business community, it was an energizing and important moment when the Collaboration Council, in discussing its regional economic development initiative, entertained a suggestion to include public education as a quality-of-life benchmark. Talk about building a public for public schools.

With that, we invite your consideration of our rating the high schools issue. Not everyone likes the idea, but we think we’ve nailed it. Mary Erpenbach’s research and reporting was thorough and fair. Our contributing writers provide depth and context. And what we found may very likely contribute to a renewed public for public schools. That’s our hope.

Neil P. Heinen, Editorial Director

Comments and letters can be sent to P.O. Box 44965, Madison, WI 53744-4965 or e-mail: nheinen@madisonmagazine.com. Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

Madison Magazine - August 2007
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